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Kids put superheroes to work

By Carmen Duarte -- The Arizona Daily Star

TUCSON, Ariz. - Tag Girl is a superheroine who beautifies Old Pascua Yaqui Village.

She wipes out gang graffiti with the touch of a paint brush. In its place, Tag Girl paints beautiful flowers. She picks trash off the street and in so doing makes people smile.

Iliana Acuna, a fifth-grader at Richey K - 8 School, brings Tag Girl to life in a comic book that she illustrated and wrote through a project funded by the Robert Bowne Foundation in New York City.

Acuna is among some 330 students - from elementary to high school - who participated in the Comic Book Project. Selected pieces of students' work will be published in the ''I am a Super Hero'' comic book. The project was hosted locally by ArtsReach, a nonprofit organization that directs writing programs in American Indian and Latino communities, said executive director Nancy Young Wright.

Acuna and Mario Gamez, also from Richey, were honored along with other students who participated in the project at a reception earlier in June at the Pascua Neighborhood Center.

The center is within the Old Pascua Yaqui Village - where Acuna and Gamez live - and is east of Interstate 10 and south of West Grant Road. The village was officially established in 1921.

Gamez's comic book, ''Knowledge Woman,'' tells a story about the differences between Mansfeld Middle School and Richey, and how knowledge can better people's lives.

Gamez writes about a teacher superhero who works to get more supplies, computers and classrooms for Richey students. In the end, friendships are created between the schools, which make for better communities.

''I've always liked writing stories and writing about my feelings,'' said Gamez, who plans on going to college and becoming a business investor.

Acuna plans on becoming a journalist and writing for a magazine. She said that she wants to share more of the Yaqui culture with others and write about the traditional Easter ceremonies.

''I like growing up here because my family and friends live here,'' Acuna said. ''I also like hearing the stories my nana tells me,'' said the girl, who is close to her grandparents, Eva and Tony Acuna.

Marge Pellegrino, of ArtsReach, and Nina M. Womack-Rangel, of Richey, worked with the students and helped them shape their stories into comic book form. ''It was really fun and pretty neat to see the kids get excited about their work,'' Pellegrino said.

Womack-Rangel said she liked that the children fleshed out stories about issues that were important in their lives.

Principal Helen Grijalva compared the project to seeds planted in a garden that result in a colorful bouquet of flowers. ''This project produced a lot of young writers and artists,'' Grijalva said.

Michael Bitz, a teacher and educational researcher at Columbia University's Teachers College, said he founded the Comic Book Project in 2001 as a single after-school program in New York City.

The project has now touched 20,000 students in 15 cities across the United States, and has integrated art and writing in a fun format that connects to youth.

In November, Bitz came to Tucson and trained teachers in Amphitheater Public Schools and the Indian Oasis Baboquivari, Tucson and Sunnyside unified school districts. Educators from five youth agencies also participated.

Bitz also presented the project - as well as Acuna and Mario with their comic books - in March at the National After School Association Conference in Phoenix. Richey student Adam Smith also participated in the conference.

Bitz said he plans on continuing the project in Tucson next year.

For more information about the Comic Book Project, visit www.comicbookproject.org/draft.htm and see the work of Tucson-area students.

Copyright (c) 2007, The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson, Ariz. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.